‘To help people, to further the kingdom’

Congregations engage the complexities of mental illness

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Apr 16, 2014
Photo: Lynda Greer/Holy Comforter

Clifford Williams, working in the Friendship Center’s studio, paints head of a tiger. The Friendship Center is a ministry of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta, where more than half the congregation includes persons living with mental illness. Photo: Ann Fowler/Holy Comforter

[Episcopal News Service] When Matthew Collins was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about seven years ago, he lost his job, his marriage and his self-understanding in rapid succession.

“Mental illness turned my own mind into something I no longer recognized,” Collins told ENS recently. During two sleepless weeks he cycled through psychosis, paranoia, grandiose illusions, beliefs that people were trying to kill him. Eventually he was hospitalized. Afterwards, there was the stigma of being labeled a person with mental illness.

“It was an extremely frightening experience, the most frightening experience I’d ever endured,” he recalled. “I lost the job I was working while I was hospitalized. I was married at the time. My wife then was frightened by the experience in the same way I was frightened, but she did not want to engage it. So, she left.

“I had been very successful in my undergraduate degree, working full-time and going to school full-time and had been supporting myself since I turned 18,” Collins said. “I was also in the U.S. Air Force reserves and I had balanced it all very well and very successfully, so it was a very painful experience to move from being an independent, successful person to someone I no longer recognized.”

When he told family members about his diagnosis, their reaction was, unfortunately, typical of many, including clergy and communities of faith: “they just kind of acted like it wasn’t there,” he recalled.

Mental illness in varying degrees affects some 25 percent of the U.S. population and struggling families often turn first for support and aid to clergy and faith communities, who typically are ill-equipped to offer meaningful assistance.

“I think there is an imperative that the Body of Christ actually be the Body of Christ,” said Collins, executive director of the Friendship Center, a ministry of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta, where more than half the congregation includes persons living with mental illness.

“My hope for the Body of Christ at large and the Episcopal Church in the future is that we would truly mirror more and more what neighborhood churches look like,” Collins said. “In particular, there are people living with mental illness and/or families of people living with mental illness in every congregation across our nation but in most churches, it’s just unspoken and unaddressed.”

Holy Comforter: ‘all of us together’

The Rev. Mike Tanner, Holy Comforter’s vicar, believes that acknowledging mental illness is often “too challenging to our self image.”

“I know people who have trouble coming to Holy Comforter and I think it’s because the presence of mental illness in other people creates fear in them about themselves,” Tanner told ENS. “We often have an idea of what church ought to be like and it’s pretty nice and clean and well-ordered and doesn’t look like the world around us. But,” he added, “Holy Comforter looks like the world around us.”

The Rev. Mike Tanner, Holy Comforter Episcopal Church’s vicar, says the community is “the richest spiritual and theological environment I’ve ever been in.” Photo: Holy Comforter

Founded in 1893, Holy Comforter was nearly shuttered in the mid-1980s “because of white flight” out of the city, he said. Those left behind were the poor and former residents of mental institutions released under federally mandated deinstitutionalization. Then, a new vicar walked the neighborhood, inviting everyone to church “and the people who came were living in group homes and had recently been released from mental institutions,” Tanner said.

Now, Holy Comforter’s average Sunday attendance is about 80, and about 60 percent of the congregation includes “people who live with a diagnosable mental illness” such as schizophrenia, psychotic disorder, anxiety disorder and depression, and who are severely and persistently affected by mental illness to the extent that they do not have much of a work life at all because of their illness,” Tanner said.

“The bulk are people in personal-care homes, whose only income is their SSI (supplemental security income) check and who get Medicaid for their medical services and who basically live in significant poverty, along with mental illness or some other disability.”

And yet Holy Comforter “turns out to be the richest spiritual and theological environment I’ve ever been in,” he said.

“We have a rich liturgical life, a prayer book-centered liturgy, but the thing that has amazed me is how rich the environment is because of the presence of people who aren’t like I am, … and how visibly God is working in their lives, and how strong their faith is, in spite of their Job-like lives.”

Are there disruptions? Sure, Tanner said. “There are odd things, like one woman who’s so severely affected that she will get up in the middle of my preaching or celebrating and walk up to the altar and move something from one side to the other. In many ways, we’ve learned to be more relaxed about that than if we were in a buttoned-up place.”

The remainder of the congregation “are people who find this kind of church a very attractive place to be, that worshipping God in the presence of poverty and chronic illness and that kind of vulnerability on the surface all the time, enriches their spiritual lives and also gives them a sense of mission of something they can do in the world to help people, to further the kingdom.”

Like Helen Cabe, an independent contractor nurse, who said she went to Holy Comforter about four years ago to donate clothes, “fell in love with the place and the next thing I knew, I was driving vans and serving meals. I joined the church, got baptized and here I am.”

“Some really different stuff happens there, but also some very amazing things happen,” said Cabe, 45. With “some mental health issues in my family” she especially likes the services Holy Comforter provides, through its Friendship Center, to the community.

“Society just does not provide for people with mental illness,” she said. “The safety net is not effective. A lot of our members live in some pretty rough conditions and aren’t cared for. We advocate for them. We provide services, meals. One of our members who has a mental health disability used to be a nurse and is now employed by the church to do vital signs; and he has a foot clinic.”

Moreover, everyone is involved in the church’s liturgical life, she added. “We have people at so many different levels of ability. So, people who are able to read get up and read. One of our choir members lives in a group home and the people who carry the offering plates, and the bread and wine, are profoundly disabled.

“We encourage wellness, and for everybody to do as much as they can,” she said. “It makes for more of a sense of community. It’s not us and them; it’s all of us together.”

Photo: Lynda Greer/Holy Comforter

From left, May C. Brown, director of Friendship Center’s gardening program; Eddie Dillard, gardener and Alice Delaney, parishioner, volunteer, and Brown’s partner join a customer to look over a selection of plants at the farmers’ market at the Cathedral of St Philip. Photo: Ann Fowler/Holy Comforter

For Richard Cummins, 47, the gardening program at the Friendship Center has meant a whole new life and community.

“It’s hard for me not to worry and stuff,” Cummins told ENS. “I worry about things that a lot of people wouldn’t worry about. My anxiety prevented me from holding a job and I ended up in a personal-care home,” he said.

When the Holy Comforter van picked up other residents at the group home a few years ago, he decided to go along, too. Now, he works Tuesdays and Thursdays — and since it’s springtime, on Saturdays, too — in the garden center. “I do just about everything in the garden, transplanting, I’m real good at organizing and cleaning out the tool shed. This year, we’ve planted tomatoes, herbs, parsley, eggplant, just about everything, and flowers. And I weed the garden.”

And that’s not all. “I sing in the choir,” Cummins said. “I do bible readings at the Wednesday evening services and I’m on the vestry.”

Last year, the center served 16,000 meals, provided arts and other programs to an average 85 people daily. If ever there was a community “that owned mental illness and claimed it for what its redemptive value can be, this is it,” said Collins.

‘Friend to Friend’ – learning to engage

Through the diocesan Episcopal Community Services congregations in the Diocese of San Diego can offer support and assistance to homeless people who also suffer from mental illness, according to Lesslie Keller, executive director/chief executive officer.

“It’s an old-fashioned, street-based ministry to the chronically ill who also have a diagnosis of mental illness,” Keller told ENS. “I find that usually has a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. We’re dealing with people with schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety disorder who experience repeated bouts of homelessness or long-term periods of homelessness.”

San Diego County has an estimated 9,000 homeless people, mainly in the downtown area, Keller said. Volunteers for the Friend to Friend program invite homeless persons to a drop-in center, where case management services, arts and other classes and meals are available to them. Congregations sponsor the meals, according to Deann Ayer, community engagement coordinator. “It’s a welcoming, inviting place where people can work on their goals and seek healing and significant progress,” Ayer said.

On a mission to “dismantle the stigma of mental illness” Keller said that, inevitably, whenever she makes presentations about Friend To Friend, “someone pulls me aside and in a confessional way tells me about a family member suffering from mental illness and in a very moving and concerning way tells me how the family can’t talk about it.”

Part of a trend across the church

Increasingly, faith communities across the nation are acknowledging the need to equip clergy and congregations to assist persons with mental illness.

The Rev. Canon Angela Shepherd has helped coordinate a series of Mental Health First Aid workshops in the Diocese of Maryland, as a proactive way of “offering support, and pointing people in the right direction for mental health care,” she wrote in an email to ENS. “The workshop covers suicide, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. The information is pertinent for clergy and lay alike.”

All of which “has really hit home,” for the Rev. Caroline Stewart, associate rector of The Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, who acknowledged that she, along with parishioners, has family members living with mental illness. But often, “because of the stigma associated with it, they don’t self-identify.”

While most persons coping with mental illness are not violent, a clergy colleague and a parish administrator were killed by an individual who was homeless who had mental health issues two years ago at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, she said. Since then, “we have had programs deliberately on mental illness, for not only the congregation but for the community. We will do something each year to de-stigmatize the issue of mental illness,” she said.

“Anything you can do to bring it into the sunshine of day,” she added. “You never know who you’re going to touch and what impact you’ll have.”

Victoria Slocum, a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, is hoping to develop ways to incorporate persons with intellectual disabilities into worship services because “liturgical churches like the Episcopal Church are ideally suited because we follow a precise format in our services.”

Her efforts may also assist congregations in opening themselves up, as well. “I remember being in a church with a woman who had three children with severe ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) who was asked not to come back to the church,” she said.

The former special-education teacher also “had parents who said they would like to go to church but didn’t want to take their children for fear they’d disrupt the service.

“People in need, need the church most,” she said. “That’s why we need to make our churches truly welcoming and create a situation where they can participate. It’s more than just coming and sitting in church. The question is, if a person wants to worship, how can we include them? Everyone’s got a right to worship as they wish or not, but if they do wish to worship, how can we make it accessible to them?”

Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta is "a congregation living with significant mental illness," its vicar says. Photo: Lynda Greer/Holy Comforter

Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta is “a congregation living with significant mental illness,” its vicar says. Photo: Richard Norris/Holy Comforter

Tanner of Holy Comforter said: “You have to start with the realization that, whether I can see it or not, right now it’s in my parish and if I begin manifesting an openness to talking about mental illness and to people with mental illness, if I stop resisting the stigma of mental illness, I can create an environment within the parish that makes people feel safe to talk about it.”

“People don’t talk about things like that in church because church is just like the rest of society in so many cases and the rest of society doesn’t want to know about it.”

He added that: “People with mental illness are very aware they’re different and that it’s dangerous to let other people know what they’re going through,” he added.

Holy Comforter’s program is not based on a charity model and that is a good thing, according to the Friendship Center’s Collins. “This is a model of mutuality and in that mutuality of personhood and human dignity, no one is providing ministry to the mentally ill.”

“We are just a congregation living with significant mental illness,” he said. “And what I’m learning at my time at Holy Comforter is, when you extend ministry with, rather than ministry to, it starts to open up ministry with every group, so inclusion just breeds more inclusion.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.  

Comments (2)

  1. Angela Shepherd says:

    This is a great article and it’s nice to know so much is happening throughout the Episcopal Church. Just one correction though. I along with Sharon Tillman, my colleague on staff, have worked to coordinate workshops in the Diocese of Maryland that will be led by qualified professionals from the Mental Health Association of Maryland. I will not be leading them. Sharon and I have attended a workshop and highly recommend it.

  2. Becca Allison says:

    Absolutely wonderful. This is how it should be done. I happen to love several people who have been diagnosed with mental illness as well as having depressive episodes myself. Loving them for who they are and what they can contribute is a wonderful gift. God bless these folks!

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